Chole Richard

Rethinking Education: A call for inter-disciplinary learning for Uganda’s secondary schools.

Two months to schools’ closure for holiday-break, I had a learning trip to a government-aided secondary school in central region of Uganda where I witnessed remarkable changes in students’ learning programs. The school was bustling with practical learning activities in the afternoon on the day I visited. They were indicators of a good start to expectations of the new ordinary level curriculum, which emphasizes practical work to produce desirable competencies in attempt to prepare young people for the world of the 21st century. “…promoting values and attitudes; effective learning and acquisition of skills in order to reduce unemployment among school graduates.” is what the curriculum states in part. After completing classroom activities, learners apply what they have learnt by doing practical work they call projects, in which they are assessed by their teachers, accounting for 20% of their performance. The 80% is accounted for through summative assessment centrally at national level.  It is a move in the right direction, away from miscarriage of an education system that has been adversely distilled and degraded to irrelevant, knowledge-based tests and examinations. One of the interesting aspects of the new curriculum is opportunity for learners to break half-way their four years studies to undergo assessment and accreditation in one area of work or occupations which are clustered around six selected vocational subjects. For instance, some of the occupations clustered around agriculture are fish farmer, bee keeper, mushroom farmer, and so forth.  For all its laudable progress, I see need to urgently further authenticate learners’ experiences by introducing interdisciplinary or issue driven learning which can then be evaluated through formative assessment as a main stay of the curriculum, alongside the subject based activities.

Inter-Disciplinary Learning Mirrors Life Itself

Life, in reality, is never compartmentalized into subjects, contrary to what the new curriculum seems to suggest. Rather it presents itself as fusion of all the disciplines that one needs in order to deal with issue(s). Of course, certain disciplines in specific learning activities may take dominance over the others, but each of them involved is needed to finish the work at hand. When constructing a house, knowledge and skills in civil and electrical engineering, and mathematics may be dominant. But knowledge of a language, food and nutrition (the workers must eat!), and a host of other minor disciplines are equally very important contributors to completion of the house construction. When, where, or how I deploy the disciplines may not necessarily be driven by convenience of programming them (Teaching/learners’ timetable), but by needs as they arise. So, it is only as a specific occupation, that a learner may begin to narrow down by preference and by demand of occupational need. However, even then, your competency and knowledge in other disciplines remain important.

A Traditional Practice Severed by History

Splitting learner experiences into subjects has been a derailment from Uganda’s pre-formal education system where the form of an individual’s learning experience was determined by necessity of the issue at hand, and the necessary competencies required to pursue it.  A boy who was learning to hunt wild animals might have to learn to hold a spear, pick his way stealthily through bush to kill, and always come back with meat for the family.  So, the learning disciplines addressed themselves to tackling real problem, and established instantaneous solution to the benefit of concerned parties. But today, demarcating disciplines tends to serve no beneficial purpose, but needless convenience of acquiring knowledge and skills that alienate the learner from sustainable management of the environment and the resources it holds.

Responding to Immersive World of Knowledge Verses Personal Capacities to Learn and Create.

A hundred years later, the environment has taken on a radically different form, drowning the learner in an immersive digital world. Now the new curriculum has an uphill task of closing a time gap of over a century of an estranged educational system. Today’s learning constellation, with aid of digital content is increasingly, freely accessible to retrieve, process, modify and share, from almost any part of the world. However, our continued hold on controlling and apportioning knowledge for learners denies them the opportunity to immerse themselves in this wealth of knowledge. It is no wonder that the contribution of Uganda, and Africa at large, towards content creation in the cyberworld (and even out of it) is comparatively insignificant because we have not built the mentality to constructively participate, but remain irrelevantly passive consumers of information.  So, the new curriculum needs to quickly transit to freeing the learner (and the teacher) from subject demarcations and knowledge-based learning. Instead, more focus need be on developing their personal capabilities to customize and utilize the exponentially abundant information by innovatively and creatively building content for their needs and the world that they envisage.

The Way Forward

My preference in the new curriculum, going forward, is introduction of in-depth, interdisciplinary, learner-centered program in which learners attempt to address real world issues close to their hearts and minds. It would blend theoretical and practical activities, and multi-thronged formative evaluation system spread out for entire length of the learning experience.  The program may take several days, depending on nature of the learning activities, learner’s abilities, tools, and probably by dictates of the curriculum framework. 

Project Based Learning – the Solution

Project based learning is the teaching/learning strategy that comes to mind for a way forward. It is credited for permitting learners to subject their identified issues at hand to in-depth study in order to find answers or solutions by constructing new knowledge and product. By the end of the project, with good management of the whole process, the learners transform into experts in their chosen area of study with a product to talk about. Perhaps more importantly, they acquire and build crucial, transferable, high order thinking competencies like critical thinking and problem solving, which greatly can enhance the quality of learners that we prepare for work, and more richly inform the professional choices that they have to make.

Project Based Learning – A Rich and Engaging Process of Learning

Buck’s Institute for Education in the USA, a dedicated advocate and practitioner of project-based learning defines the mode of instruction as, “…a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging and complex question, problem or challenge.” Project based learning sees the world we live in as essentially an adult world of projects, and that learners need not wait to grow up first to engage in similar human endeavors. Like the hunter’s son of old days, they need to learn and grow with it, tackling issues affecting them, others, or their community. Like the adults in their lives, learners perceive an issue, empathetically address its impact, and device a plan to address it. They may need to pitch it with an authority for approval, or funds, which would probably mean a budget was developed. They may have to divide roles according to each learner’s capabilities and interests, brainstorm on issues and resolve. In between, like it happens in real life, they may fail, and therefore have to reflect, regroup, redraw plan and hope to do better. They do reflections from time to time, carry out field excursions and research, consult resourceful persons and institutions, identify most effective tools and improvise, or dismiss where need be. As a learning experience, the project is normally subjected to a final exhibition, which is arguably the most exciting, and crowning moment for participating learners of a project. One aspect I particularly find laudable with project-based learning is that there is no need to stress self over resources you can access. You work within your means.  Isn’t this the sensible principle in our daily lives?

Project Based Learning – Desirable Learning Outcomes

With proper and effective organization, reliable facilitator support, and the learners’ sustained drive, a project’s learning outcomes can be mind-blowing. Learners realize and affirm their potentials, find fulfilment, their perspective broadens, confidence is boosted, they find an inner drive and life becomes more purposeful.  They learn new skills and become experts in their area of studies in the project. Their reason to always go to school is likely to find new life and new meaning. Competencies, including the cross-cutting skills that the new curriculum spells out as areas of focus become appreciated for their transferable value. It may also lead to a symbiotic growth of unpredicted secondary impact across communities. The possibilities can be endless, each offering door of possibilities and opportunities.

Project Based Learning – A Recommendation

Issue driven, learner centered, authentic experience is a pointer to the future of secondary school education. I recommend introducing a project-based learning program as a main stream activity for learners subjected to elaborate formative assessment using static and fluid rubric. Each learner should have opportunity to participate in at least one project-based learning program in a year. The learning experiences in project-based learning can feed subject based activities while the later acts as sources of knowledge and skills for the project-based learning activities.

Conclusion

In the picture are two of three young men who completed their first university degree three to five years ago. Through rigorous thinking, consultation, discussion, brain storming, and the will power to succeed, they formulated a solution idea to issue of thousands of phones and other movable personal items being lost, with only five percent being recovered. They have presented their plan to the facilitating organization, Youth Start-Up Academy, Uganda, soliciting for 20,000 US dollars. They are reminiscent of the founders of Safeboda transport company in Uganda, who started their enterprise in similar fashions. Today, Safeboda is a well-established brand in the capital city of Uganda, Kampala, and source of inspiration to many young people in the country. I find it an unacceptable irony that such flourishing modern trends are not directly propagated by curriculum of secondary schools, but by innovative-minded business entities that are showing the way ahead for the education sector. The introduction of the new curriculum for lower secondary school is arguably one of the most exciting developments in history of Uganda’s education. But there is still some work to do for formal education and its curriculum to be relevant and top of the game.

I will be very happy to receive your views on this write-up; any concern in it that you find worth addressing.

Thank you.

Chole

Photo: Two of three emerging young innovative entrepreneurs of Mufate Technologies, Kampala, Uganda. Photography by Chole Richard.

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2 Comments

    Mubbaka

    September 25, 2023Reply

    Thank you Mr chole Richard for such wonderful observation in Ugandan Education education and policy

      Richard Chole

      October 20, 2023Reply

      Thank you Mr. Mubbaka!!

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